At my alma mater every student has to write a human ecology essay, their own declaration of what Human Ecology means to them – an annoying but useful task, considering it is what we all get out degree in.
What follows is the essay I wrote last year. Obviously a lot has changed since then, but the sentiment remains. This post is long, so I am putting most of it behind the cut.
“We… covenant to affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person.”
-Principle 1, Unitarian Universalist Association
“Hi everyone. I hope you all had a great summer. Mine was… thought provoking, to say the least.
Cutting to the chase really fast, the point of this email is that I’ve finally realized that I really need to acknowledge to people aside from a few close friends that I am transgender.”
-Andrew Coate, COA Community Wide Email, September 7th, 2008
College of the Atlantic prides itself on being a college that allows us to explore who we are and what we want to study. In almost every publication about the school there is some explanation of Human Ecology, with the caveat that nobody can define Human Ecology for anybody else. Human Ecology is supposed to be an individual exploration, both of what we know and what we want to know, that we can engage in during our time at COA. In my time at COA I have explored nothing so deeply as I have explored my identity.
In preparation for writing my Human Ecology Essay I went back and read essays from former students. What I found both surprised and disconcerted me. Human Ecology, according to what I read there, is supposed to be the study of how we, again as individuals, interact with our environment, both natural and human-made. This, to me, means that we are supposed to be able to explore whatever interactions we find between ourselves and anything or anybody else. Anybody who runs a Google search on College of the Atlantic will find scores of articles both on our website and other websites and blogs on sustainability, climate change, and environmental policy initiatives but not much in the way of how who we are, our identities, interact with our social environments.
Some identities are easier to have at COA than others. It is easy to openly identify as an activist here, or as gay, as geeky, as a hippie, as a vegan, as an environmental scientist. Other identities are harder to hold here and still feel accepted; those of us who identify as people of faith, who don’t drink, and are against marijuana legalization are not nearly as readily accepted.
As an activist for the Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender (LGBT) communities I am constantly aware of how my actions reflect on the communities I advocate for. As a transgender-identified person I am also constantly aware of how individuals react to who I am and how I present myself. As a person of faith I am always aware that people do not expect or readily accept that aspect of my identity.
I came to COA with the hopes of studying gender in social contexts and after I had been here for a short while I didn’t think I had made a good decision; I felt like very few of the classes here would allow me to study what I wanted to. In fact I was only able to find one class that was directly related to gender studies during my first year at COA, but I soon realized that COA was flexible enough to allow me to relate almost any of my classes to gender. Professors let us discuss gender in relation to law and politics, or the advantages and disadvantages of studying historical documents considering they were usually written by men. This revelation was great in allowing me to discuss what I wanted to while being unable to take classes directly related to my exact interests, but it was my internship and later my discovery of an accepting faith community that really allowed me to define Human Ecology for myself.
I did my internship with a not-for-profit LGBT youth organization the summer after I completed my first year at COA. I knew that I wanted to work with the LGBT community in some way so I sought out youth organizations that took summer interns. My internship allowed me to focus specifically on LGBT issues for three months and gave me the incentive to really explore the society that has been created and how LGBT people interact in it.
More than anything else my internship gave me the community, the language, and the encouragement to feel comfortable enough to come out as transgender to the COA community, which I did before returning for my second year. It was alternately the most liberating and the most terrifying thing to walk on to campus after that email knowing that almost everyone suddenly knew what had been a fairly private part of my identity. Being open about who I was gave me even more incentive to encourage others to open their minds and hearts to all people, and a wonderful opportunity presented itself to me during the spring of 2009.
On April 22nd, 2009, I was present at a public hearing on LD 1020, An Act To End Discrimination in Civil Marriage and Affirm Religious Freedom, held at the Augusta Civic Center in Augusta, Maine. A short fourteen days later Maine’s Governor Baldacci signed a bill into law that gave same-sex couples the right to marry in the state. Before it was signed in to law the proponents of the bill were already suspecting that the opponents would use the citizen’s veto process to put the issue up for public vote the next November. We were not wrong.
I spent all of Fall 2009 campaigning on and off the COA campus. I sat in Take a Break, our cafeteria, every available lunch and dinner; collecting donations, signing people up to phone bank, discussing the importance of marriage equality, telling people how to register to vote, and begging people to please get involved, at least this one time. I slept very little that term. During our faculty retreat I essentially moved in to the Hancock County Democrats Office. I begged a car off a friend and drove to Ellsworth before the sun was up most mornings, coming home way after it was dark and, on a few occasions, not at all. I went door to door, I coordinated other people to go door to door, I stepped out of my comfort zone and led trainings on how to canvass, how to phonebank, how to talk to their own friends and family, and how to persuade people to vote how we wanted on Election night.
The battle that ensued to preserve what many saw as basic civil rights was something that those of us involved will not soon forget. Election night ended with me sobbing, crying harder than I had ever cried before. I cried because we lost, I cried because I lost, I cried because fighting felt useless and because I thought I should have fought harder. I cried into the arms amazing activists who I had met only weeks prior but who I had become amazingly close with.
The next morning was ten times harder than the night before. The next morning I had to walk into the cafeteria where I had been campaigning for weeks, and see the people who I had been harassing to phone bank, to canvass, to donate and, if nothing else, to please just vote no on Question 1. The next morning I got up, took a hot shower, reminded myself that it was not my fault alone that Maine had lost equal marriage rights, and walked into the cafeteria. “Andrew,” said a friend’s boyfriend, “how did the election turn out?” “We lost” I managed, before I started sobbing all over again. To his credit his reaction was to step forward and give me a hug, and not to try to ask any more questions.
That is interaction. That is an individual interacting with their human-made, their chosen, society. That is human ecology.
That night there was a candlelight service, entitled Standing on the Side of Love: All are Equal, at the Unitarian Universalist Church in Ellsworth, the same building that had been so kind as to let us host all of our phone banks there. I went mostly because I wanted to see my campaign friends who would understand how upset I was. There weren’t many of us at the service, certainly fewer than twenty people. I cried again, and people hugged me again, and the minister of the church invited me to come the next Sunday. I’m still not quite sure why I did.
In a lot of ways religion and LGBT activism don’t mix very well. Some denominations of the Christian Church have been the main contributors, both monetarily, politically and socially, to the fight against full rights for LGBT individuals. I was asked to leave a Pentecostal Church when I was 12, after I came out as a lesbian and refused to allow the youth minister to lay hands on me and “cast out the demons of homosexuality.” I figured that was pretty unlikely to happen at the UU church, and I wanted to go, but I didn’t know why. I had not been longing for a religion, a faith community, or a low-key place to go on Sunday mornings with nobody else my age.
I attended that first Sunday, people were welcoming, and I realized I knew a lot of the congregants already. I kept attending each Sunday, and very shortly thereafter the minister asked if I would like to consider becoming a member. At first I recoiled, but then I thought more about it and said that I would be willing to take the classes at the very least. Less than two months later I stood on the chancel as the congregation welcomed me with kind words, a book about Unitarian Universalism, and a wet handshake that I’m fairly certain was supposed to be symbolic.
Unitarian Universalists have seven principles. They are not a creed, but simply seven statements that the member congregations of the Unitarian Universalist association covenant to affirm and promote. The first is “the inherent worth an dignity of every person.” The seventh is “respect for the interdependent web of existence of which we are all a part.” The other five are about acceptance, encouragement, the democratic process and its use in society, justice, peace, equity, compassion and a free and responsible search for truth and meaning.
My church recently held a series of classes to discuss our seven principles. It was sometime during the second or third class when I realized that what the seven principles were talking about was what I had been struggling with this entire time when thinking about Human Ecology and how it applies to my life. How we interact with society. How I as an activist interact with the communities I work with. These principles suddenly went from something printed on the back of the order of service each Sunday to a definition and a goal. A definition of this vague concept of Human Ecology that I had been instructed to define, as I would soon have a degree in it. A goal of how I should strive to live, to interact with other people in my communities.
Suddenly the religion that has become important to me so quickly was able to define something I had spent more than two years hashing out in my mind and during long nights hanging out with friends by the ocean. Human Ecology, from my perspective, was already defined for me right there on the back of a folded 8.5”x17” piece of paper that a smiling septuagenarian had handed to me on a Sunday morning in January. Human Ecology is the seven principles of my faith.
My definition of Human Ecology probably doesn’t work for everyone, or anyone, else. While COA may not have taught me what Human Ecology is, COA has taught me how to look into myself and out to my community to define the ultimate goals of education. When I started at College of the Atlantic three years ago I never could have imagined myself writing my Human Ecology Essay on how I interact with the world as a transgender, social justice activist, person of faith. But that is precisely what I have turned into with the help of lots of books, friends and mentors all over the country, and this quirky little school on the coast of Bar Harbor.